RANT: When Geekery Goes Mainstream, Do We Lose?

Image by Denny’s. No, you’re not seeing things.

By Natania Barron
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

There are hobbits at Denny’s. I’m supposed to be excited about this. I’m supposed to be frothing at the mouth, declaring victory for second breakfast and showing up in my own home-made hobbit feet, singing The Road Goes Ever On and On and snapping pictures on my iPhone every step of the way. Preferably with a cool, old-timey Instagram filter. This is, after all, essentially my defining fandom. This is what got me started down this path strewn with meeples and maps and swords and dice. According to market research, I’m the demographic.

I should be thrilled.

But I’m not.

Am I failing at fandom? Or it it something else?

Let me back up a bit. My first atomic-level obsession was the Ninja Turtles. My first fandom was Star Wars. The difference is that with TMNT, I spent the majority of my time holed up with just my sister quoting the entire films verbatim. We were totally insular in our obsession. In high school, I found other kids who loved Star Wars just as much as I did, and I suppose that’s when I officially transitioned to fandom. We’d quote the lines to each other, readied ourselves for the new (and ultimately childhood-crushing) prequel, had lightsaber fights in the halls, bought the copious Taco Bell tie-ins (man, but did I visit Taco Bell a ton the year they had those pogs) and all skipped school for The Phantom Menace senior year. Even though the movies were huge, they were somehow precious. It wasn’t that often your favorite characters showed up at Taco Bell, after all.

Then came The Lord of the Rings which, now that I think of it, combined both obsession and fandom. Maybe that’s why it was so overwhelmingly powerfull. It was the rumor of the Peter Jackson movies that got me on my first MUSH, Elendor (where I met my husband) and ultimately connected me with a far larger network of geeks — those that liked They Might Be Giants, dug literature, watched Samurai Jack. I found my tribe. So all this hobbit breakfast business is pretty apparent on my radar, if you get my drift.

And I frigging hate this idea. (That strangled cry you heard a few days ago was when I read the words “Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies” and wanted to defenestrate my phone to punish it for showing the story to me.) I want to find whoever made this decision and just start, I dunno, throwing stale seedcakes at their heads. Real seedcakes, presumably made at home without horrid, fast food equivalent ingredients. I mean, I could deal with the light-up goblets at Burger King. They were kitschy and at least relatively thematic. And like with Taco Bell before them, this was a relatively unusual celebration. Plus I was in college, and it was an awesome uh, beverage vessel. But I wasn’t expected to actually eat their food.

That’s the thing with this food chain celebrating second breakfast. They want me to eat their food!

I’ll be honest. I don’t really like Big Bang Theory and I haven’t managed to get into Doctor Who. In all these cases I feel conflicted–it’s wonderful that finally, geeks are actually a huge factor in what’s being published and brought to the big screen… but I’m also aware that I’m a demographic. I can see through their guises. I’m making someone good advertising revenue! (And so are you.)

But this Denny’s second breakfast stuff… this is something else altogether. It’s one thing to feel like I might not connect with as many fandoms as I used to, and to feel like my preferences are bleeding into the mainstream and being wary of that. In some ways I guess it’s nice that we don’t have to work so hard in the land of obscurity. But in the end, I feel less thrilled and more pandered to, in no way more than this recent second-breakfastmagaddeon. I feel like my fandom has officially been mined. Our very own “Scouring of the Shire” as it were. (And that’s not where it ends. Look at Wreck-It Ralph. When I saw the preview for this during Brave, I turned to my husband and said: “Wow, that looks cool except… but I feel like the exploited demographic. Hello, 80s kids having kids! You are our target marketing demographic, and we’re capitalizing off your ginormous nostalgia factor!” Yes. The world has been rendered in 8-bit, and I’m supposed to be Ms. Pac-Man, gobbling it up.)

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like this is fandom jumping the shark. The geeky and the mainstream are no longer on separate paths. We don’t have to go digging for the obscure, like Mikey and his map to One-Eyed Willy in The Goonies. Comics, hobbits, video games, these things that used to be so rare and personal and geek elite, are everywhere. And I wish I could say it was just this hobbit nonsense. The truth is, it’s been happening for a while. The online world is dominated by fan things, with every tie-in imaginable, and people champing at the bit to get their favorite quote on a t-shirt/mug/bumper sticker/laptop bag/iPhone case/app.

It’s the stuff. It’s everywhere. And it’s one thing to do marketing for super heroes and movies. It’s another to break the core of what hobbits actually stood for which, I assure you, had nothing to do with stuffing oneself with cutely named, and what I assume to be nutritionally void food items, in strip malls.

Maybe you’re not a curmudgeon like me. All I’m saying is that, fandom failure or not, it’s our responsibility as geeks to demand more than stuff and fluff. Sometimes our tendencies to gripe about things can be annoying, but it’s essential; we need it now more than ever (see the most recent attempt and failure to cash in, er, “re-imagine” the Ninja Turtles) as we’re increasingly appropriated. We need to step back from all the stuff that’s piling up around us, take a deep breath, and consider what it all means.

So we’ve proved that yes, we can change the world. But we can’t let the world change us, either. We’ve got to keep getting bigger, faster, stronger, smarter… We can’t settle. It’s more than knowing the right quotes and wearing the right clothes or eating the food they want us to eat. If that’s all it becomes, it’s nothing better than any trend or club. Fandom is about community, it’s about storytelling, it’s about becoming something more than the dose of reality we’ve all been served. And that, most certainly, can’t be found in a box.

Or on a platter at Denny’s.

Now, confusticate and be bother the rest. I’m going to go get some tea and some fresh air.

“But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good tilled earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow.” — Bilbo, from Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring